Public Spaces and the Common Weal

Every now and then I find myself recalling a long-ago morning in the midsized German city I once called home. My girlfriend and I lived in the section of town that housed students, artists, pensioners and foreign “guest workers.” On that morning I sat on our tiny balcony and watched repairs being done to the street below. It was a cobblestone street, and a stone mason was replacing a section of it. He was using differently sized stones, placing them at variable angles to create a floral pattern that spread around the sidewalk corner. I watched him kneeling there, painstakingly tapping stones a centimeter this way, a centimeter that way, to get the pattern just right.

I was astonished, even a bit mesmerized. Such attention to detail!  Back in the States you’d only find this level of care, design, and craftsmanship – and expenditure – at a private club, or at the homes of the wealthy. Yet here it was, a public street in the poorer part of town. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Such was the case in Germany generally, with its immaculate parks and train stations, its crowded but tidy town squares and gleaming public conveyances. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, was a country that nurtured the common weal with well-appointed, well-run, and well-maintained places and amenities.

 

I thought about this recently when I went with my wife and daughter to play tennis at our local public park here in Connecticut. We hadn’t been able to do this all summer, because the city was resurfacing the courts and tore them up in mid-Spring -- then let them sit until August was nearly over. So the first problem was the cancellation of a whole summer of use.

But we soon discovered an annoying on-court problem as well. Whoever put up the fence around the newly-resurfaced courts left in many places a 3'' gap at the bottom, between the fence and the ground. The diameter of a tennis ball is 2.7".  So when you play now, your tennis balls trickle under the fence and into the woods or onto the lawn. And you have to go all the way around to retrieve them. Additionally, adding salt to the wound, whoever put the fence up created a lot of snipped-off ends of green-coated fence wire -- and just tossed them away. So not only did the construction crew fail to make the fence meet the basic requirement of a fence... but they wantonly littered the job site in the process.

I know that tennis is far from an important civic priority, but that’s not the point. The point is the state of our public places and facilities. And, I guess, the state of our expectations as citizens. Do we actually have expectations? One might be that the people you hire to build a tennis court should know how to build a tennis court.

The fence is not an isolated problem; it strikes me as drearily emblematic of how things work in this country – or, too often, don’t work. Recently I heard a huge noise in front of our house, and went out to find two guys from the city’s department of public works with a truck and a giant vacuum hose, suctioning up the street drain. In the six years I’ve lived here – working at home, with my window overlooking the street -- I’ve never seen this done. I asked one of the guys how often they do the drains.

He shrugged. “Well, in theory we do them once a year,” he said.

I watched for a few minutes, then went back inside. Later, when they were gone, I inspected the drain and noticed two things. First, they hadn’t put the heavy iron grate back on properly; one edge was pushed up over the pavement, creating an obstacle that could mess up a tire or injure a cyclist. Second, big gobs of the leafy sludge they had suctioned up had fallen onto the grate, so that half of its holes were now occluded. In other words, not only was the city not hewing to the scheduled upkeep, but its crew had left the drain in worse shape than it had been in before they “serviced” it. I got a pry bar from my shed and rectified the situation.

Have we lost the expectation that things in the public sector will be done right? Did we ever have it to begin with? I recognize how deflated my expectations have become when I find myself effusively lauding this or that postal worker, DMV employee, city clerk, contractor or police officer for simply doing his or her job. It was great, I’ll enthuse to someone later on, they listened and they actually took care of it!

I think about that fence at the tennis courts, and the thousands of tennis balls that will roll beneath it, until people in frustration take boards, pieces of cardboard, old sheets and towels, and stuff them into the crack all the way around. Can’t you just see it? This is a little thing, but I find it demoralizing, in a “broken-windows” kind of way. If we can't get the little things right, what about the big things? It’s a matter of how, and how much, we care about our public places and public services.

Obviously we have some great parks in this country; whenever I’m in Manhattan, for instance, I seem to end up walking the High Line and visiting Bryant Park. (And often I think, This feels like being in Europe!). I wish that the ingenuity in creating such big-city showcase places, and the assiduousness in maintaining them, would seep out to America more broadly. How do you jumpstart a civic culture of competence and care? Public, civic space reflects how a society prizes and enacts its sense of commonality, and public employees are the mechanics of that commonality. We can’t afford to laugh off lackluster efforts in this realm as “good enough for government work.” Because government work, after all, is work by all of us, for all of us. And when it is shoddy, we are shoddy.

 

 

 

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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